Czech Easter - The Sundays of Lent
Contributed by Petr Chudoba

Roast Sunday (Second Sunday in Lent)

In the Czech lands, this Sunday used to be called "Roast Sunday" after a simple fast meal was prepared by roasting unripe grain ears or individual grains. This was one of the oldest ways of preparing grain for use, and was also a suitable way of preserving it. After roasting, it was further treated, and possibly ground and used for cooking a soup.

Sneezing Sunday (Third Sunday in Lent)

This was called "Sneezing Sunday" because on that day the Czechs held Masses to avert the plague. One of the first symptoms of the plague was excessive sneezing. The saying "God bless you!", which we still wish a sneezing person, has its origin in the fear of the plague.

Later on, the superstition that sneezing "clears the head" led to the popularity of snuff, so much so that sneezing and taking snuff were common on that day. People believed that the number of times one sneezed on that day would equal the number of years that they would have yet to live.

Matchmaker Sunday (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

This Sunday was almost in the middle of Lent, so it became the occasion to celebrate the time of fasting that had already passed. Mild entertainment was allowed and some restrictions were lifted. For example, dances were organized, but only in public places under the supervision of the whole village.

This Sunday was sometimes called "Matchmaker Sunday" because this was a time for the matchmaker to visit, together with the groom, the parents of the prospective bride in order to discuss courting and other matters. Special "matchmaker cakes" used to be baked for the matchmaker and the groom.

Passiontide and Passion Sunday

Passiontide is composed of the last two weeks of Lent, from Passion Sunday (Smrtná neděle) until White Saturday (Bílá sobota). As a liturgical season, it is older than Lent, having been established by the Church as a period of fasting as early as the third century. During the first four weeks of Lent, the spirit of personal penance prevailed, but these last fourteen days were devoted entirely to the meditation of the Passion of Jesus.

Passion Sunday is the second Sunday before Easter and the fifth Sunday in Lent, appointed for meditation on the Passion of Jesus. Among the Slavic nations Passion Sunday is also called "Silent Sunday" and "Quiet Sunday". In the Czech Republic, Passion Sunday is called the "Black Sunday" or "Death Sunday" (Smrtná neděle).

On the eve of Passion Sunday the crucifixes, statues and pictures in the churches are draped in purple cloth as a sign of mourning. This custom originated in Rome in the thirteenth century, where in ancient times the images of the papal chapel in the Vatican used to be shrouded when the deacon sang the concluding words of the Sunday Gospel, "Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple" (John 8:59 NKJV).

The liturgical services of Passiontide are based on what happened to Jesus during the last days before His death, leading up to the mysteries of the Passion. The Mass texts are dominated by the thought of the Just One, persecuted by His enemies, as He approaches the supreme sacrifice on Golgotha.

In the Divine Office of Passiontide the famous hymns of the Holy Cross ("Vexilla regis" and "Pange lingua, gloriosi lauream") are sung or recited. Psalm 42 ("Introibo") is omitted at the Mass, as is the "Gloria Patri" in the Divine Office. These changes, however, are probably due to reasons other than the liturgical memory of the Lord's Passion.

Death Sunday and the Death of Morena

Winter, the season of the year when vegetation is dormant, is a time of cold, often stormy, weather, and short days. Darkness comes early and the resulting atmosphere is one of gloom. Before the development of modern lighting - when candles, pitch pine and the fire on the hearth provided the only illumination - the atmosphere created by darkness was even more unpleasant. The peasants of Europe believed that the demons of winter were everywhere, lurking in the shadows of house and barn, in the fields and woods, and especially in dark places. Signs and symbols of these demons were to be found in the cold atmosphere, the leafless trees, the barren ground, and the brown grass. Only the death of winter could dispel all this darkness.

In the Czech Republic, the symbolic death of winter occurs on Black Sunday (Smrtná neděle), fourteen days before Easter Sunday. In the Bohemian Forest, among the Chods, it's customary to prepare a dummy (named Morena), who represents the old winter or Death. Like winter, the dummy's face must be ugly! The figure is fashioned of straw or sticks, dressed in old white clothes (to symbolize the snow), and decorated with old rags and a necklace of eggs.

The whole ceremony, called vynáąení Moreny or vynáąení Smrtky, is organized by children and young  people dressed in traditional folk costumes. It is accompanied by songs celebrating the oncoming spring and awakening nature.

The villagers carry Morena about the fields while the younger marchers in costume sing sad funeral music. They parade to the river, swinging Morena from side to side, and singing:

We are carrying out the winter
And bringing in the springtime.

After the girls remove her clothes, Morena is beaten to pieces, her straw burned, scattered to the winds, or "drowned" in running water. As she is thrown into the river and floats away, the people shout:

Death is floating down the river,
And spring will soon be here.

This ceremony is supposed to show that everything dead or dying must be done away with to make way for spring. After the dead winter is thrown into the stream, život (Life) or jarní čas (springtime) is carried about in the hands of the marchers. These are represented by small fir trees, decorated with gaily colored eggshells, red apples, and chains of flowers or bright ribbons, like miniature Christmas trees. They form groups and go caroling from house to house, announcing the coming of spring in song and collecting ingredients for holiday cakes and other gifts.

This festivity can be seen in Valašsko, Horňácko, Českomoravská vrchovina or in the Chodsko or Blata regions.

In the Podluľí region, the same ceremony is done with a twig decorated with painted eggs. Special types of cakes are baked and symbolic ornaments are painted on thousands of egg shells to be sold by old village women at market places all over Bohemia and Moravia.

In the Bydľov region, they used to put flax behind the windows in the belief that no one would die in the house during the entire year if they did.

Flower (Palm) Sunday

"This day illuminates the beginnings of the sufferings of the Lord. Come, therefore, O friends, let us meet together with hymns; for the Creator comes, humbling Himself to the Cross, to trial and to blows and to the judgment of Pilate. Moreover, smitten on the head by a servant, He submits to all things that He may save mankind. Wherefore let us cry: O merciful Christ our God, grant forgiveness of sins, to those who worship in faith Thy Holy Passion." (Palm Sunday Evening)

In the Czech Republic, Palm Sunday is called Květná neděle (Flower Sunday). Květná neděle itself is traditionally a day of rejoicing, for it is the anniversary of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem. He rode on a colt for which He Himself had sent (Mark 11:1-7). His entrance into Jerusalem is a fulfillment of the messianic prophecies about the king who would enter his holy city to establish a final kingdom. "Lo, your king is coming to you. He is victorious, triumphant, yet humble, riding on an ass." (Zechariah 9:9 JPS)

A large crowd met Him in a manner befitting royalty. Breaking branches of the date palm and the olive, they waved them about as a sign of welcome. The people also covered the main road leading to Jerusalem with palm branches. They spread their cloaks on the road as a show of respect, crying out: "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:9 NKJV) Jesus went immediately to the Temple where He prayed and taught. That evening, He departed for Bethany.

Květná neděle marks the start of Passion week. In most European countries, the palm which is used on Palm Sunday is a pussywillow branch. In the Czech Republic, the priests bless pussy willows, wood and water. Following the Sunday Mass, the farmers wave the blessed willows over their fields of grain, hoping for a rich crop and to ward off hail and violent windstorms.

This is similar to the practice in various Slavic countries and in Austria, where farmers and their families carry the blessed palms or willows in a procession through the fields. As they visit each field, they chant hymns and leave a bit of the palm; the barns and other farm buildings are visited in the same way. This is done to bring the blessing of God upon the animals and crops.

In the Czech Republic, the potency of the holy willow is held to be so great that people frequently eat the pussy willows in the belief that they thereby safeguard their health for the year!

On this day, baking was forbidden because the blossoms on the trees would get burned!

The services lasted until dawn, for at that time the Paschal Vigil lasted all night. The faithful kept lights burning all night so their rays would link with the morning sun. The services were not elaborate.

It was also called the Day of Light. All activities on that, and the previous day, should have been aimed at cleansing the soul, body and dwellings, so that everything was to be spick and span.

In Czech, the word Velikonoce refers to the Veliké noci, or great nights, during which Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The night from Bílá sobota (White Saturday) to Easter Sunday was from ancient times regarded as the greatest night on the Church calendar. On this day the bells come back from Rome and are rung to signal the end of the fast.

People in their Sunday best were ready for the festive Mass of the Resurrection. The housekeeper extinguished all the fires in the household and took a piece of firewood to the church. There she lit it from blessed fire, brought it home, and lighted the fires again.

Daytime church services are not held at all, and services are held instead either after the sun goes down or after midnight. A procession parades around the whole square, and then the entire church. Once inside, the priests bless the water, candles and lights. Only blessed candles and lights are used in the church during these night-time services. Pieces of wood are scorched and taken by people to put in the rafters of their houses for protection against lightning and fire.

Bílá sobota is regarded, along with Zelený čtvrtek, as a lucky day for sowing. The farmers place ashes on their fields to ensure a good crop, and shake the trees, so that they'll yield a lot of fruit. They say that if it rains on Bílá sobota, it will rain often during the coming year.

If you're in the Czech Republic on Bílá sobota, take time to stand a while in front of the church in Domaľlice, Kyjov, Blatnice, Břeclav or Vlčnov and enjoy the ceremonial costumes of the women and girls.

Because of the Virgin Mary's faith in His promise to rise again from the dead, the day is consecrated to her.